This story is dedicated to the women and men who wait.
My most sincere gratitude goes to my wonderful Dana Marton Book Club on Facebook. My book club members picked the title, edited the story for me, and even helped with the cover. I’ve never met a group of people who are more fun, more knowledgeable about books, and kinder. Being your friend is a privilege!
Broslin Creek Series
WHEN YOU RETURN TO ME (A Broslin Creek Short Story)
When You Return to Me Copyright © 2015 Dana Marton
All rights reserved. Published in the United States of America. No part of this book maybe used or reproduced in any manner without the written permission of the author. www.danamarton.com
WHEN YOU RETURN TO ME
(A Broslin Creek Short Story)
Sometimes, if she stayed very still and quiet, she could swear she heard Cam’s voice calling her name.
Maggie O’Connor held her breath, standing in the middle of her backyard, as she listened to the wind. But instead of a distant whisper, the loud bang of a rifle rent the silence.
Some people lived for danger, enjoyed the challenge, savored the rush of adrenaline. Maggie wasn’t one of them. As soon as she heard the gunshot, she ran like hell, slaloming around chickens that scattered with outraged cries and madly flapping wings.
She didn’t stop until she was behind the barn. She pressed her back flat against the peeling red paint, and tried to catch her breath.
Minutes passed. No repeat fire. “Crazy old geezer.”
The bravest of the hens, already returning to the handful of corn she’d tossed earlier, clucked in agreement.
“I need to start paying attention.” Maggie filled her lungs with crisp country air, drawing comfort from the scent of freshly fallen snow, summer hay, and herbs that hung by the bunch in the hayloft.
She peeked around the corner.
“Hunting season is over!” she yelled as loudly as she could.
Not that shouting helped. Grandpa Gardner next door was as deaf as a milk bucket and twice as blind, and when he got it in his head he was wild turkey hunting…God help Maggie’s chickens.
Keeping in the cover of the barn, she crept toward her house, then scooted in through the back door into the sanctuary of her blue and white country kitchen. She stepped out of her ankle-high boots and left them by the door, pulled off her sweater to hang it on one of the dozen pegs that held her collection of coats, hats and scarves.
She combed through her waist-length hair with her fingers to get the dark mess under control, turned toward the middle of the kitchen, and took a steadying breath. The scent of armloads of lavender waiting for processing enveloped her. Instant aromatherapy—exactly what she needed to settle her nerves.
She pulled aside the curtain and looked out the window but didn’t see anyone. Her neighbor was shooting from his bathroom window again. As he’d reached his nineties, Grandpa Gardner had turned from a rugged huntsman into a creature of comfort. At least Maggie was safe in the house. He still recognized large buildings, and he couldn’t shoot at her house from his bathroom window anyway—wrong angle.
Her gaze settled on the dreamcatcher hanging in the window, the three lines of a Native American proverb written on the ribbons.
“Listen to the wind, it talks.
Listen to the silence, it speaks.
Listen to your heart, it knows.”
Her great-great-great grandmother had been Lenape Indian, her great-great-great grandfather an Irish immigrant. Cameron Gardner, the boy next door, used to say her innate knowledge of plants must have come from the Lenape side, her temper from the Irish.
What temper? she’d ask every time, and Cam would laugh and kiss her.
He’d first kissed her when they’d been fifteen. They’d first snuck up to the hayloft when they’d been eighteen. Now she was twenty-nine, and she no longer had him.
She closed her eyes against the memories. She hurt, but she didn’t disintegrate from the pain that plowed into her. She could finally, more often than not, control the avalanche. She could dig out and drag her broken heart along.
Maggie filled her lungs, opened her eyes, and went to pull an oversized rooster from the freezer. She tossed the freezer bag, then set the bird on a stoneware plate to defrost in the microwave.
The rooster should feed Grandpa Gardner for a week, and if she was lucky, he wouldn’t feel the urge to hunt for a while. Not that he should be hunting at all, considering he couldn’t see worth a damn, and fall turkey season had ended over three weeks ago, at the end of November.
She turned on the oven to preheat then busied herself at the sink, trying to figure out what to do with Cam’s grandfather next door. Sooner or later someone was going to file an official complaint, or worse, somebody would get hurt. He couldn’t go on like this, armed and semi-blind.
The phone rang at the same time as the microwave beeped.
“Everything all right out there?” Captain Bing, Broslin PD’s police captain asked on the other end.
Maggie winced. Somebody did call in the gunshot.
“He’s wild turkey hunting.”
“I figured. Blanks?”
Maggie closed her eyes and lied to the police. Instead of mostly, she said, “Yes, sir.”
Old Albert had been selling nothing but empty shells to Grandpa Gardner for the last couple of years, but ever since the store hired a new assistant, you never could tell. The kid couldn’t keep his teeth straight, let alone the special ‘needs’ of his customers. Maggie would have to go down to the gun store and remind him.
Grandpa Gardner might wing a suspicious looking bush or a stray chicken now and then, but Maggie didn’t want him locked away—either in a retirement home or in jail. He was no threat to the public. He only hunted from his bathroom window. Couldn’t hold the rifle otherwise, since when he was on his feet, he needed both hands to hold on to his walker.
Perfect spot, honey, he’d told her more than once. I can sit on the shitter, brace my elbows on the windowsill, and bam! Sure easier on these old bones than lurking out there in the bushes in the cold and the wind.
From his spot, nobody was in danger but her chickens, and his eyesight was so bad, he never hit any of them. Maggie knew his hunting schedule, usually early in the morning, and arranged her barn chores around him. She’d forgotten this morning, her brain lost in experimenting with a new soap recipe for her online business. She’d run out for some lemon verbena without thinking.
“How are you, Maggie?” Captain Bing asked, and Maggie knew he didn’t just mean after the scare of the turkey hunt.
The captain’s wife had been killed years ago in what they’d at first thought was a home invasion. Her loss had taken the man to dark places, especially because as time passed, he hadn’t been able to bring her killer to justice. He knew how it felt to lose half your heart.
But he had been able to move on eventually. He’d even remarried. He’d healed. He was so ridiculously in love with his new wife, Sophie, it felt good just to look at them when they were together.
“How is the adoption going?” Maggie asked instead of answering his question, and she was grateful when he let her change the subject.
“One more week. I don’t think Sophie puts that baby down for longer than she needs to go to the bathroom.”
According to Pennsylvania law, the birthmother had ninety days to change her mind about the adoption. Maggie could see why the captain and Sophie were holding their breath.
“If she ever does want to put the baby down, I’m available for babysitting,” she offered.
“I don’t know. The kid might be too old for a babysitter by the time she’s willing to let him out of sight.” The captain’s voice held so much love, it practically flowed through the line like water.
They talked about the baby for another minute or two. Then Maggie thanked Captain Bing for checking up on her and understanding that all Grandpa Gardner wanted was to die at home in peace instead of some institution, and for not making a federal case out of the occasional turkey hunt.
As Maggie hung up with the police captain, she pulled her blue, enameled roaster pan from an overhead cabinet and set it on the crowded counter, careful not to disturb the nicely rising bread loaves she’d worked on that morning.
Two hours later, the rooster ready and steaming, Maggie pulled it from the oven to slip the six loaves of herb bread in its place. Doris Turbaum had ordered them for pickup for a Christmas party at the VFW hall.
The oven door closed once again, Maggie eyed the golden, steaming rooster, pinched a piece of salty crisp skin from the end of a drumstick, and licked her fingers before putting the roaster’s lid on. She looked out the window. Across the yard, the Gardner house stood silent in the thick shade of tall pines.
No more shots had sounded while she’d cooked. A good sign.
As she turned to the sink to wash her hands, her phone rang again, and she wedged it between her ear and shoulder.
Zak Greenfield was a year younger than she was, ran the feed store with his father. He was smart, funny, hardworking. Half the girls in Broslin were in love with him. He had only a single fault: he was in love with Maggie.
She washed her hands with soap, which turned out to be a mistake. Ah. She grabbed after Cam’s ring, but too late. The golden band with the diamond fell straight down, out of her reach.
“So I have tickets to the high school musical,” Zak was saying with a smile in his voice. “Grease. I have to support my brat sister.”
Maggie squeezed her eyes shut and gripped the edge of the sink so hard it made her hands hurt, but she barely felt the pain. She stared at the drain.
Stupid. Since Cam had put that ring on her finger, she’d lost weight, her fingers were slimmer. She would either have to have the ring resized, or put it away before she lost it.
She didn’t want to take it off and put it away. And the resizing… For one, she hated not having the ring on, handing it over to somebody. What if they lost it? And, at the same time, she was afraid of what having the ring resized meant—that after four years, she still wasn’t ready to let go, that she was never going to be able to let go.
“Want to go to the musical with me?” Zak asked, so sweet and cheerful, Maggie could practically see his dimples.
She had to say yes. If she said no, it’d mean that she was really stuck. That maybe she would be stuck forever.
“I’m sorry, Zak,” she whispered.
And after a drawn-out moment, he whispered back, the smile gone from his voice, “He’s gone, Maggie.”
“I don’t feel it,” she confessed, even if she sounded crazy.
“Do you feel anything?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let me help you feel again.”
She bent down and opened the cabinet under the sink. She needed to take the P-trap apart to get her ring back. She straightened and headed to the garage for her toolbox.
Because she’d been silent, Zak spoke again. “Are you still waiting for him to come back?”
She couldn’t say the words, because even to her own ears, they sounded like sheer insanity.
“Maggie, we buried him.”
They’d buried a handful of ashes. “Even the Army makes mistakes.”
“They found his dog tags.”
She stood with her hand on the door to the garage, her chest so tight it hurt. Six soldiers had been on board when the chopper had been shot down over Afghanistan. The remains—what was left of them—had been recovered. Most of the dog tags had simply melted. Cam’s was one of only two that had been recognizable.
A mangled mess, she had it in her nightstand.
“Okay,” Zak said on a sigh. “So if you’re still waiting, what’s this alternative scenario that you’re thinking about?”
She bit her bottom lip. “Maybe he went down with the chopper, but was just badly injured instead of dying. Maybe some local shepherds took him high up into the hills and nursed him back to life. He had amnesia from his injuries, fell in love with the lovely shepherd girl who nursed him, married her and by now they have three children.”
Maggie filled her lungs. Maybe someday he would remember her. As long as he was alive and happy, she could deal with it, even if he wasn’t hers.
“Oh, Maggie,” came from Zak, with tears in his tone.
“Or maybe the bad guys took him and held him captive for the past four years,” she voiced a different, darker dream.
“Even if that’s the case, and he was freed today, and he came back…” Zak let his voice trail off.
Even if Cam came back, especially after four years of captivity and torture, it didn’t mean they could pick up where they’d left off. Miraculously returning after an absence this long, even if he showed up today, he’d be a different person. A lot of soldiers came back changed.
“I’m not going to try anything and push you,” Zak promised. “We can take it slow. Just come with me to the musical. I swear I won’t grope you under the cover of darkness in the high school auditorium.” The lightness came back into his voice. “Of course, if you want to grope me, that’s totally okay. More than okay.”
He made her smile. But she said, “I just can’t, Zak.”
After they hung up, she opened the door to the garage, then realized the wrench she needed wasn’t in her tool box. She’d left it at Grandpa Gardner’s house the day before. He’d had a dripping pipe in his bathroom.
She closed the door. Fine. She was heading over there anyway. She just had to remember to bring the wrench back.
She turned into the laundry room, and from the windowsill she grabbed one of the foot-tall potted rosemary bushes she’d grown from cuttings, forcing herself to focus on that instead of analyzing the conversation she’d just had with Zak. She carried the pot back to the kitchen, put it on the counter, and decorated the needled branches with red ribbons until the plant looked like a miniature Christmas tree.
By the time she finished, the oven dinged, and she pulled out the loaves of bread, then lined them up on the cooling rack.
She carefully placed the potted rosemary into a plastic grocery bag, then hung the bag from her wrist. She picked up the blue enamel roaster, holding the handles with a dishtowel, stepped into her boots, and walked out the door.
She shivered as soon as she got outside, her flannel shirt insufficient protection from the chill. Going back for her coat hardly seemed worthwhile. The two houses had been part of the same soybean farm up until fifty years ago, before someone had subdivided. The distance between her and her neighbor was less than three hundred yards.
“It’s Maggie,” she yelled as soon as she reached Grandpa Gardner’s front porch. “Found a dead turkey behind the barn. Heard the shooting earlier, figured you must have gotten him. I went ahead and cleaned and roasted him for you.”
Balancing the roaster with one hand, she opened the door slowly. “It’s Maggie,” she shouted louder.
Maggie passed through the living room, avoiding Cam’s picture on the wall. The photo had been taken after he’d passed boot camp. He’d worn a crisp green Army uniform, the flag of the United States of America behind him.
They’d been eighteen. By that time, she’d been in love with him for at least ten years. And he’d been in love with her, according to him, forever.
Shutting down that line of thinking, she took the rooster straight to the kitchen and set it on the ancient stove, wondering if the old man was in the garage, sneaking a smoke. His wife, Mildred, had passed away twelve years ago, but he still kept her rules.
The kitchen stood empty and sad with its faded wallpaper and stack of paper plates by the sink. She tried to remember what the place looked like when Mildred had been alive, making her famous walnut brownies for the invading hordes of neighborhood children.
She’d been the warmest woman Maggie had ever known, raising her troublemaker grandson with her husband after the death of their daughter and son-in-law in a car accident. Tough woman, too. She’d been Broslin’s first female police officer in her day. Maybe even first in the whole county.
The year Mildred died of breast cancer, Cam had gone into the Army like his father and grandfather before him. He’d planned to serve eight years, four to honor his father’s own service, four to honor his grandfather’s. While serving his country, he was also going to get an education, and gain skills he could turn into a civilian occupation. Then he was going to come home and they were going to get married.
But he never saw the wedding dress that now hid in Maggie’s guest bedroom closet.
“It’s Maggie,” she yelled again and felt guilty for not coming over enough. Grandpa Gardner had to be lonely.
She popped in every day to check on him, but rarely stayed for more than a few minutes. The memories the house held made her heart bleed.
She took the Christmas rosemary out of the bag and put it on the middle of the kitchen table, fluffed up the flattened ribbons a little. Then she pulled two plates from the cupboard next to the outdated avocado-colored fridge. She had enough time to stay for a quick bite and a chat.
Neither of them could handle talking about Cam, so their conversations were pretty safe at least. She didn’t have to worry that her neighbor would say, Isn’t that a shame that boy’s chopper crashed in the Afghan mountains one week before he was scheduled to come home to us?
A month before the wedding that had never happened.
“Maggie? Is that you, honey?” Grandpa Gardner came from the back at last. At the sight of the roaster pan, a wide grin split his leathered face. “Got another one, didn’t I?”
“It’s pretty decent sized.”
“Wasn’t sure. Can’t see worth a damn these days.”
“Might be a good time to stop hunting,” she suggested gently.
But he countered with, “A man ain’t a man, if he can’t shoot his own dinner.” He squinted at the rooster. Pride laced his voice as he shuffled forward with his walker and added, “I’ll eat off that thing for a week.”
Maggie pulled his chair out for him and made sure he had his noon pills at hand. She smiled at him, even if looking at him reminded her of Cam way too much—that blue gaze, the voice, and definitely the manly-man attitude. Her heart clenched.
She went back to the counter and popped three potatoes into the microwave, then grabbed the leftover peas from the fridge and warmed them. She’d brought the peas over yesterday with a pair of pork chops.
And now she was microwaving three potatoes.
Because, even after four years, every time she cooked for Grandpa Gardner, she cooked as if they still had Cam.
After the first year, she’d stopped putting out an extra plate. But she hadn’t been able to stop cooking enough, just in case Cam showed up at the last second.
She drew air into her suddenly too tight lungs. She had to let go. She couldn’t.
Because in her heart of hearts, she still couldn’t accept that Cam was gone; she didn’t believe it.
“Listen to the wind, it talks.
Listen to the silence, it speaks.
Listen to your heart, it knows.”
When she listened to the wind, it brought her the echo of Cam’s voice. When she listened to the silence of her lonely house, it spoke Cam’s name. When she listened to her heart, all she heard was that she loved Cam, and Cam loved her.
She’d been to the funeral, she tried to remind herself. She’d watched the coffin go into the ground.
Her brain understood the stark reality.
Her heart was prepared to die hoping.
From the corner of her eye, she caught a pecan pie on the shelf next to the sink, and it turned her mind into a happier direction. She stole a sniff and nearly moaned from the scent of sugary, nutty goodness. “Who brought this?”
Grandpa Gardner swallowed his pills. “Luanne. Love that girl.”
Everybody did. Even when Luanne had been accused of murder last year, most people in town never believed it.
Gravel crunched outside as a car pulled up the driveway. Probably Captain Bing, checking up on Grandpa Gardner. Since the old man was hard of hearing, calling him on the phone didn’t work. Unless he was sitting in the kitchen, next to the wall phone, he rarely heard the ring.
Maggie put another plate on the table. Maybe Captain Bing would have a few minutes to grab a bite with them.
She stepped to the fridge to grab the sour cream for the potatoes. The front door opened behind her. Closed.
“Hey, Captain—” She turned, dropped the sour cream, didn’t feel the plastic tub bouncing off the toe of her boots.
Inside the front door stood a stranger.
A very familiar stranger, in rumpled Army fatigues. His dark-blond hair was longer, his face leaner, white scars on his jaw. The skin on his neck was puckered where it had burned. He looked…harder, gaunter.
Even his blue eyes weren’t the same. In her memories, his eyes always laughed. Now they looked ancient, as if not just four years had passed since they’d last seen each other, but thousands.
For a moment, she considered that Grandpa Gardner had shot her. Maybe she was lying on frozen ground outside her barn, hallucinating as she bled out, because not enough blood was reaching her brain.
Then he spoke. “I’m back.”
His voice sliced through her.
In her fantasies, this was where he opened his arms and she flew into them. But he just watched her with his ancient eyes. And her feet were frozen to the spot. She wrapped her arms around herself, in shock. She was shaking.
She tried to control her breath so she wouldn’t hyperventilate.
“Maggie,” he said. “Gramps.”
She looked at Grandpa Gardner, because looking at Cam hurt. The old man couldn’t take his eyes off his grandson. His leathery cheeks were wet.
“Cameron. Let me look at you, boy. Come over here. You came at the right time. We’re having Christmas lunch. Not that you could have come at a wrong time.” His voice that Maggie had never heard as much as waver, now broke. “Thank God, you’re back.”
Cam strode over and lifted his grandfather up from the chair in a bear hug. “I missed you, Gramps.”
And the two men held and held.
While Maggie felt as if she was having an out-of-body experience. She picked up the tub of sour cream that, thankfully, hadn’t busted open. Placed it on the counter.
But then she had nothing else to do.
“How?” she asked.
Cam let his grandfather go and turned to her. “I was captured by insurgents and held in a cave.”
Impossible. She’d fantasized about that. How could this be real?
“All this time?”
“I got injured in the crash,” Cam said with a tight expression. “At first I was pretty out of it.”
“I escaped.” He reached up to rub his chest. “A couple of times. They kept catching me.”
Deep down, something inside her fiercely resisted the idea that this was real. Because if she believed in Cam’s return, and once again all this turned out to be an elaborate dream, and she woke up, her heart would break and she would die right there in her bed. She couldn’t feel what she was feeling right now and have all that be yanked away from her. She wouldn’t survive it.
“The Army said there’d been six bodies,” she said. All men accounted for. No survivors.
Cam eyed the third plate she’d just put out moments ago. “Are you expecting someone?”
“I thought Captain Bing might stop by.”
The flash of emotion in Cam’s eyes was gone before she could identify it. He sat by the plate.
“When the insurgents shot us down,” he said, “we fell right on top of them. I was thrown from the chopper when it crashed, slammed into a crevice in the rock. The explosion that came seconds later killed the crew, not the crash. But the explosion must have blown over my head.”
A grim expression sat on his face. “The insurgents lost one of their men. They took me with them. I was out of it. Didn’t know anything until weeks later.” He held her gaze. “I don’t remember much. Just flashes.”
Her chest squeezed so hard she had trouble breathing. “You don’t have to talk about it.”
She stepped toward the door on shaking legs. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I can stay for lunch. I’m baking bread for Doris. I need to check on things at home. I should give you two some time together.”
And then she ran like a coward.
She didn’t stop until she was standing in her kitchen, gripping the sink so hard she thought she’d break it, tears pouring down her face.
She didn’t understand what was happening to her.
She remembered being five years old, wanting to meet Santa more than she’d ever wanted anything in her life. She couldn’t sleep for days beforehand. Then her mom took her to the mall, and Santa was there, and he was perfect, larger than life, all her fantasies and so much better, just there, smiling at her, opening his arms.
She’d screamed and run in the opposite direction, suddenly more scared than she’d ever been. Her mother couldn’t talk her into going within twenty feet of the guy.
He’d been…too much. He’d overwhelmed her so much, her brain had shorted out.
Maggie had been five then. She was twenty-nine now.
Cam was back.
She didn’t understand why his return would gut her almost as badly as his loss.
But she knew one thing. She wasn’t going to run.
“Listen to the wind, it talks.
Listen to the silence, it speaks.
Listen to your heart, it knows.”
She could swear she could hear the wind outside calling her name. In Cam’s voice.
She eased her death grip off the sink and hurried to the door.
She took only a few steps in the yard when she saw him striding toward her from his grandfather’s house.
They both stopped when they were maybe twenty feet from each other. His gaze was filled with uncertainty and caution, his body language a study in control, as if he was struggling to hold back, as if it cost him to make himself just stand there.
A single word, but more than a word. Her name on his lips was hope on wings.
And she flew to him.
His arms around her were real. The warm neck she buried her face in was real. She pressed her lips against the puckered scars of his skin and breathed in his familiar scent.
He’s real. He came back.
She couldn’t speak. She could no longer even see. She was crying so hard, her tears soaked his shirt.
He didn’t seem to mind.
His strong arms closed around her and held her so tightly she could barely breathe.
She didn’t want to breathe. She didn’t need air. She just needed Cam to hold her like this, forever.
“Maggie,” he whispered into her hair, his voice laden with emotion. “My Maggie.”
She tilted her head up and smiled at him through her tears.
“Are you still my Maggie?” His tone turned raspy.
“Forever.” The single word came from deep inside her, straight from her heart.
Cam held her gaze. “I thought… You aren’t wearing my ring.”
She explained what happened.
“I’ll get it out.” He closed his eyes for a second, and a look of incredible relief came onto his face, then he opened his eyes, and they were filled with a look of incredible possessiveness.
“You had a plate out for Captain Bing,” he said. “Are you close friends?”
She was ashamed of how much she liked the tone of jealousy. “Not that close. He remarried, actually. Wait until you meet his wife, Sophie. She’s as small as a pixie and looks like Orphan Annie. But she’s a spitfire.”
“She’d have to be, to take down the captain.”
Maggie shook her head. “No takedown. They lifted each other up. I swear, the stuff they went through, it’s enough to turn you to reading romance novels.” She grinned when Cam looked skeptical. “They’re adopting a little boy.”
“I’ll have to stop by the station and congratulate the man,” Cam said. “What else have I missed?”
They were talking about others because the reunion was still too raw to talk about themselves, but that would come. They had time. They had forever.
She couldn’t think. Her brain couldn’t hold any other thought than that Cam was back. But then she said, “We had a serial killer.”
Cam’s arms tightened around her. “In Broslin? Who?”
She told him. Then she said, “You know the guy who replaced Murph Dolan at the PD?”
Maggie nodded. “He got buried alive and everything. Ashley Price dug him up.”
Cam raised an eyebrow in a gesture of pure disbelief. “The artist?”
“They’re together now. He adopted Ashley’s daughter, and then they had another. You know how he was all dark and broody and scary?” She paused a beat. “Now he wears pink tiaras to Madison’s tea parties.”
“I’ll believe that,” Cam said with a bucket load of skepticism, “when I see it.”
“I have pictures on my cell phone.” Maggie grinned. Then she added, “Oh, and Luanne married Chase. He’s Detective Chase Merritt now. Can you believe it?”
“Not really,” he said in a stunned tone. “The Luanne who told everyone in high school that Chase was bad in bed?”
“She was accused of murder. He was the detective on the case. I guess he forgave her past transgressions.” Maggie smiled. “By the way, apparently, Luanne brought a pecan pie by for your grandfather yesterday, so thank her if you run into her in town.”
Because Mildred, his grandmother, had been a policewoman, the PD kind of kept an eye of Grandpa Gardner. Captain Bing stopped in often to check on the old man. The wives of the officers brought a pie or a casserole now and then. The PD was like family. They took care of their own.
“Oh, and Captain Bing’s brother, Hunter, is engaged. To a city girl!”
“Way.” She grinned. “Gabi used to be an inner-city cop, but now she’s with Broslin PD. Okay, don’t tell anyone, but Sophie told me, she stopped by the PD to drop off dinner for the captain last week, and she walked in on Gabi and Hunter in the back.”
Cam’s eyes went comically wide. “They were having sex in a holding cell?”
Maggie blushed. “Gabi had Hunter handcuffed to the bars.”
And Cam murmured under his breath, with feeling, “Lucky bastard.”
She fanned herself. “The way those two look at each other, I think they’re singlehandedly responsible for global warming.”
“Like this?” Cam shot her his own smoldering look.
Good Lord, she could practically hear the arctic icecaps melting.
Then he dipped his head, held her gaze. And she staggered under the warm weight of the love in his eyes. He brushed his mouth over hers before he pulled back.
She reached up to touch his face.
He put his hand over hers. “Your fingers are cold.”
He turned them toward his place without letting her go, just tucking her under his arm, the two of them moving together as if they were part of each other.
Grandpa Gardner smiled at them from the kitchen as they stepped inside. “Glad you brought her back, boy.” He winked. “Always said you got your smarts from your grandfather.”
Cam’s lips pulled to the side in an almost smile. “I think I’ve grown up in the past four years, Gramps. You think you’ll ever switch to calling me a man?”
“When you smarten up enough to marry our Maggie here.”
Cam’s gaze dropped to her face. His smile could have resurrected the dead.
He asked his grandfather, “You know a good priest?”
Maggie’s heart beat so hard, she thought it might fall out of her chest.
Grandpa Gardner harrumphed. “He might not want to deal with you again. You never showed for your last appointment.” He struggled to push to his feet, grabbing the walker. “I better get my afternoon nap. Dang pills make me sleepy.”
Cam went to help him get settled in.
While Maggie did the dishes, she could hear the deep murmur of their voices as they talked to each other. Having his grandson back was going to make a world of difference for Grandpa Gardner.
Then Cam was coming down the hallway. “Hold on for a sec. I need to get something.”
He stepped out the back door. Probably for wood. It was Christmas Eve. He was home. Maybe he wanted a fire in the fireplace like back in the old days. She blushed as she thought of the evenings they’d spent necking in front of the fire. Necking and more, the nights Grandpa Gardner spent at his hunting camp with his buddies.
But when Cam returned five minutes later, instead of wood, he was carrying her ring. He’d even shined it up on his way back.
He stepped in front of her, and she held her breath.
“Maggie O’Connor, will you marry me?”
She didn’t have to think about it. “Yes.”
And he slipped the ring on her finger.
He reached up and framed her face between his large hands. “I’m sorry I shocked you by showing up out of the blue. I’ve been spending a lot of time in debriefings with my colonel. I asked him not to notify the family. I didn’t want you and Gramps to think I’d be home for Christmas, then have to postpone and disappoint you, make you wait when another debriefing session was scheduled.”
“You’re not ever allowed to say sorry. For coming back to me, I forgive all past and future transgressions,” she said through tears.
“Can I get that in writing? Because in sixty or so years of marriage, I figure I’m bound to make a few mistakes.” He smiled that smile of his that had been carved on her heart.
He brushed his lips against hers then let her go, his expression tightening, as if holding back required great effort. Then he let a smile soften his face again, and picked up the dishcloth. “I’ll dry.”
“You’re not allowed to do housework.”
His eyes glinted. “Can I get that in writing, too?”
“Don’t get too excited. I meant, today.” She put the last dish on the drip tray, dried her hands, and turned to him. “We are going to ignore housework today.” She stepped up to him and wrapped her arms around his waist. “Let’s do something else.”
“Are you sure? I can wait,” he said in a voice taut with hunger. “I know you’ll have to get used to me again.”
But she lifted her lips to him without hesitation, as if the past four years had never happened. He was the one returning, but somehow she felt as if she’d just come home after a long, arduous journey through a dead and arid land. She felt complete, a deep joy filling her to the marrow.
He kissed the top of her head first, then her nose, and then her lips finally, slowly, gently, as if reintroducing himself.
She needed no introduction. She was his. She opened up to him. She had nothing she wouldn’t give to this man.
He accepted her unconditional surrender and claimed her with a desperate groan, the warmth of his embrace heating as his tongue swept inside her mouth and reminded her what passion was. He held her tighter.
He couldn’t hold her tight enough, as far as she was concerned.
He kissed her into oblivion, into heaven.
Words from the romance novel she’d been reading in the evenings surfaced in her mind: He took her in that kiss, took everything she had, and left her empty.
Cam’s kiss did the opposite. It filled Maggie to the brim.
He kissed her until her knees were so weak, he had to hold her up so she could stay standing. And when, after an eternity, he pulled back, just a little, he kept holding on to her.
“God, the things I want to do to you,” he said, his voice raspy.
“We have several hours before midnight mass,” she suggested oh so helpfully.
His grin was the kind he could definitely not wear to church. He brought her hands to his chest, against his thundering heart, and rubbed his thumb over her engagement ring. “You waited.”
“I knew you weren’t gone.”
“How?” he murmured the single word against her lips.
“I listened with my heart, and I kept hearing you call my name on the wind,” she said, and then she kissed him.